Given the tense political scene, Christians need to think carefully about how we relate to the surrounding society. And I think that, on the whole, most churches and Christians have too simplistic a view of their surrounding societies.
Some churches talk like society is the enemy. It’s decaying, in a spiritual decline, with nothing good left in it. And this changes the way we approach the society: we either redouble our outreach efforts to change the declining society, or we disengage from the degenerate society. Others focus on the progress made in society — usually in some area of social progress — and maintain a rosy view of society.
But Christians can’t settle for a simplistic view of society. Besides the simplistic views just being false, they affect the way we relate to the surrounding society.
Yes, we want simple, universal statements. This person is good or bad; this politician will improve everything or make everything worse; and so on. But we shouldn’t think of something as more simple than it really is. Most politicians are good in some areas and terrible in others. That’s more complicated than an unqualified approval of that politician. So our view of complex society probably won’t be very simple.
Stackhouse on Society
John Stackhouse does a great job of illustrating this in his recent book, Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism. Stackhouse writes:
“Yet it is good for us to recognize also that modern society has in many respects come to speak more “Christianly”— or, more accurately, more in line with the Bible as a whole— than it did in ostensibly more Christian days. Compare today with a hundred years ago, and ask yourself whether we have improved how we treat handicapped people, people of other ethnicities and religions, and the unemployed. Godly values are, indeed, still evident and even growing in some sectors of contemporary life— the worldwide spread of the language of “universal human rights” is a great trend forward— at the same time as other biblical values seem to be eroding. When it comes, then, to reflecting on any issue, we cannot take our cues automatically— whether positively or negatively— from what our society happens to be doing or saying today. We have to do our own homework, and see what Christ is saying to the church in our place and time.” (23-24: Kindle Edition)
Good in Society
As Stackhouse writes, some segments of society are trending toward a more Christian view of the world. And some of this trend has been caused by Christian ideas and ideals. Valuing each person, no matter their ethnicity or physical ability or financial worth, is rooted in the Christian view of humanity.
The handicapped are being treated with more dignity, and Christians should applaud that. And Christians should welcome the awareness of racism. Both of these teachings, and many others that have been adopted by society, is taught in the Bible.
We need a balanced view. Society is getting better. And it’s getting worse. This requires difficult and careful thinking about society and its relationship to the teachings of Christianity.
Why This Matters
The rhetoric of a simple judgment of society might seem harmless, or at least mostly harmless. But that’s not true. Instead, it does impact how Christians relate to our society.
How We Talk
First, oversimplifying the judgment of society affects how we talk about society. How many times have you heard people — older Christians, typically — talk about the decline of society? This simplifies the true situation. This matters for another reason. How we talk imparts our values to new Christians. We impart a simplistic view of society to them.
How We Address Society
Second, how we view society shapes how we address society. If your simple view of society is that it is progressing, then you won’t let address parts of society that conflict with the teachings of Christianity. But if your simple view is that society is getting worse, then you won’t support the parts of society that are being shaped by the Kingdom. For example, a lot of churches did not team up with the fight against racism. How you think about society affects how you engage culture, and a simplistic view of society leads to a misguided way to address society.
Focusing on God’s Successes More Than Satan’s
Third, overlooking the way Christianity has transformed parts of society leads us to overlook what God has accomplished. Listening to how some conservative Christians talk, you would think that the Kingdom hasn’t advanced at all in our society. But this ignores the powerful ways God has worked (and is working) in our society. Some Christians seem to only focus on how evil and Satan have prevailed. We should instead celebrate the ways the Kingdom of God has advanced.
Finally, when we oversimplify the state of our society, we miss the impact the church has had. The church isn’t impotent in the world. (And just reflect how depressing it would be if the people of God were powerless.) This might be part of the reason why some churches often fail to engage society. Society becomes something to rant against rather than reach. I think that this often pushes Christians and churches to disengage with society rather than engage it.
Christians have to avoid the lazy oversimplifications that are so tempting. The Kingdom of God is at work around us, and there are signs of it. Likewise, there are signs of people resisting that same Kingdom. Parsing out the details of this is difficult, but it is essential to understanding, loving, and reaching our society.
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